Widely regarded as one of the best alpine treks in the entire world, the Huayhuash Circuit is a remote and impossibly scenic high-altitude route in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced why-wash). The trail, totalling 135km and crossing 12 mountain passes all above 4,500m, circles some of the highest and most impressive mountains in the Andes, offering surreal vistas of jagged snow-capped peaks, turquoise lakes, and even steamy hot springs. It’s definitely a challenging trek, taking most hikers 8-12 days to complete the full loop— but it’s worth every single blister and aching muscle to see rugged natural beauty that most visitors to Peru have never even dreamt of.
This is a comprehensive guide to planning your own independent Huayhuash Circuit trek, including information about acclimatisation, getting to Huaraz and the trailhead, a super detailed Huayhuash Circuit itinerary, campsites & fees, what to expect on the trail, and a full packing list. Happy trails!
What's in this travel guide
About the Huayhuash Circuit
Peru’s compact Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range, only about 400km north of Lima and yet a world away from the bustling capital, also lacks much of the tourist traffic of the nearby Cordillera Blanca (home to the popular Laguna 69 and Santa Cruz treks, among others). This feeling of being off-the-beaten-path is one of the best things about trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash, a region perhaps best known as the setting of Joe Simpson’s epic survival following a mountaineering accident on Siula Grande (6,344m). But if one of the best things is the relative remoteness of the trails and the ability to enjoy insane views entirely to yourself, then thebest thing about the Huayhuash Circuit is the scenery itself. “Magical” doesn’t even begin to describe the dramatic peaks or towering glaciers that dominate every angle of this trek.
Depending on the exact route and the addition of side-trips, the Huayhuash Circuit is a 110-150km trek beginning either in the town of Llamac or in Quartelhuain (my recommendation; also called Cuartelwain or Matacancha on some maps). Practically the entire trek is above 4,000m, which means that it’s just as essential to be acclimatisedas it is to be a fit, experienced trekker.
There’s a lot of variability in the time taken to walk the circuit (anywhere from about 1-2 weeks), but your own trek will be a careful balance of how far you can comfortably walk in a day vs how much weight you can comfortably carry on your back. For us, 10 days was the magic number, so that’s what I’m going to describe in this post (you can still use all this info to plan a shorter or longer trip, though!). Expect to be pushed to your limits, but in the best, most inspiring kind of way— nothing worth doing is easy, and the views are that much sweeter when you earn them with blood, sweat, and the occasional tear.
Hiking independently or joining a guided trek
It’s definitely possible to tackle the Huayhuash Circuit as part of a guided trek. Most of these tours include porters/donkeys to carry your gear and food, leaving you with just a small daypack. You’ll also have meals prepared for you and all of the organisation sorted— just show up and walk. This can be a great option if you don’t have the necessary backpacking gear to camp and cook for yourself, the confidence to navigate or cope with changing conditions, the stamina to carry a heavy pack, or the time/willingness to plan your own trekking route. If you do want to join a trekking group, I became friends along the trail with a wonderful local mountaineering guide, Marco Reyes, who owns High Summit Peru in Huaraz— I highly recommend him!
But if you do want to go it alone? The reward of trekking independently is 100% worth the extra effort. I’ll talk more about what to expect on the trail (including navigational demands and the risk of altitude sickness) further down this post, but here’s just a rough idea of what’s required to trek the Huayhuash Circuit independently.
Huayhuash Circuit without a guide: is it for you?
You can hike 5-10hrs for 10 days in a row, often on very steep or uneven terrain
You are able to carry 15-25kg in your pack
You have/can hire all the necessary gear for your walk (see Packing list for the Huayhuash Circuit below) and know how to use everything correctly
You have some navigational skills and can read both a map and a GPS
You know what to do in the case of a medical emergency (especially altitude sickness) and you have a way to call for help (PLB)
You are able to complete at least 2-3 days of acclimatisation, preferably hiking, immediately before the trek (see Acclimatising for your trek below)
Before you set out on the Huayhuash Circuit
Essential maps & information
When you first begin planning your Huayhuash Circuit trek, there are a couple of invaluable resources that will make things infinitely easier. The first, of course, is this blog post! Next, I’d definitely recommend purchasing this guidebook and map:
Although it has many shortcomings (how is there no trail mileage anywhere in this book!?), is slightly outdated, and we were left routinely questioning their time estimates… this is the only real guidebook out there that covers the Huayhuash Circuit, and therefore it’s still essential in my mind. Between my blog post and this book, you should have a pretty solid idea of what to expect and how to plan the trek, as well as some directions and maps with major landmarks like campsites. I’d recommend scanning pages 152-174, printing them (they fit well on A5 sheets), and packing them in a little plastic folder for reference along the trail. Buy the book on Amazon here.
This is the best map covering the entirety of the Huayhuash Circuit, so I’d recommend purchasing this during the planning stages to help chart an intended route and also carrying it with you on the trail for reference. Be warned that this map will often use different names for things than the aforementioned guidebook, which might be different yet again from your GPS— this is a common theme in Peru, due in large part to Quechua (native Andean language) words that were phonetically translated by Spaniards during the conquest. You’ll get used to it, but just look closely at the map when you first get it so as to familiarise yourself with some of these variations (e.g. Quartelhuain vs Cuartelwain vs Matacancha, or Paso Jurau vs Paso Santa Rosa). Buy the map on Amazon here.
When to go
Weather in the Peruvian Andes is typically grouped into two seasons: a cool, dry winter (also referred to as the “Andean Summer” from May to September and a minimally warmer, but much wetter summer from October to April. The same is true for the Cordillera Huayhuash. There really isn’t much fluctuation in terms of temperature throughout the year (nighttime lows -10 to 0C, daytime highs of 18 to 22C), but there is a massive difference in terms of rain and cloud-cover.
I’ve experienced torrential rain in other parts of Peru during the wet season and I would strongly advise against a Huayhuash Circuit trek during this time. Not only are clouds likely to obscure the best views, but the navigation becomes markedly more challenging in poor weather and there’s a much greater risk of getting yourself into a sticky situation on some of the high-altitude passes. During the Andean Summer, you have a better chance of clear, sunny days with little-to-no rain.
Still, you must be prepared for all weather in the mountains, irrespective of the season! I did this trek at the very end of August and most days were sunny with occasional morning cloud cover that burned off within a few hours— but we woke up one morning to snow flurries and a campsite blanketed in white powder. Seriously, anything goes in the mountains, so prepare, prepare, prepare.
Acclimatising for your trek
Because most of us don’t live at high altitudes and aren’t used to breathing oxygen-poor air, it’s absolutely essential to give yourself time to acclimatise to the elevation before you hit the trail. This will greatly reduce the risk of altitude sickness. The best way to acclimatise before the Huayhuash Circuit is to spend at least a few days in Cusco or Huaraz and tick off some easier high-altitude treks.
Prior to this trek, I spent two weeks in Cusco (3,400m), where I did Palccoyo (4,900m), the Salkantay Trek (4,650m) and a short version of the Ausangate Circuit (5,050m), and then spent 2 days in Huaraz (3,050m), where I also hiked around Laguna Parón (4,500m). All of this acclimatisation made me really prepared for the Huayhuash Circuit and ultimately improved the quality of my trip. Even if you don’t have weeks to spend acclimatising, though, plan a minimum of 2-3 days in Huaraz before your trek. Learn more about altitude on the Huayhuash Circuit in the Altitude sickness section under What to expect on the trail below) and read this post about general high-altitude trekking.
Here are a few ideas of what to do in Huaraz before the Huayhuash Circuit:
Although Huaraz is still 150km from the Cordillera Huayhuash, this bustling mountain town (often referred to as Peru’s trekking capital) is the base for your adventure. I read many times that it’s possible to fly from Lima to Huaraz on LCPeru (Tuesdays or Thursdays), but the route appears to have been suspended, so it definitely wasn’t an option in 2019. Feel free to check before your own trip to see if these flights are operating again, but it’s likely you’ll be bussing it just like we did.
Thankfully, there’s a regular Cruz del Sur bus running between Lima and Huaraz several times throughout the day and night, and it’s really simple to reserve this online in advance. I’d recommend getting first-floor VIP seats (for only a couple soles more) on the night bus, which departs from Lima’s Plaza Norte— there are multiple stations in Lima, so just make sure you go to the right one. This bus, like most buses in Peru, is crazy comfortable and you’ll even be served hot drinks and a sandwich, given a blanket and pillow, and have a personal entertainment system in your seat-back. Who needs to fly?!
Time: several daily options, but I recommend the 10.30pm-6am night bus
Cost: S/86 for VIP seats on the first level ($37AUD)
Read more about where to stay and what to do in Huaraz: COMING SOON
Getting to the Huayhuash Circuit
Starting in Llamac
The most popular starting point for the Huayhuash Circuit is the town of Llamac, just because it’s possible to take a public bus from Huaraz. According to the guidebook, this involves several steps:
Catch a 5am El Rápido or Nazario bus from Huaraz to Chiquián (2hrs, S/10)
Catch an 8am Nazario bus from Chiquián to Llamac or Pocpa (2hrs, S/12)
Walk 12km along the road to the first campsite at Quartelhuain (4hrs)
Starting in Quartelhuain
To avoid an entire day of public buses and walking on the road, start instead at the first campsite in Quartelhuain (also called Cuartelwain or Matacancha on some maps). It’s not possible to get here with public buses, so it’s definitely not as budget-friendly an option, but it is so worth it to conserve energy for more exciting days to come.
To get to and from Quartelhuain (about 4hrs from Huaraz), we booked a private shuttle through High Summit Peru for $150USD. The owner of the company, Marco Reyes, is an incredibly experienced mountaineering guide— you might even see him out on the trail leading a trekking group like we did!— and his driver Jaime is the sweetest. It was 100% worth the additional expense to have flexibility in what time we departed Huaraz and, of course, to cut out walking on the road from Llamac, so I’d highly recommend booking a shuttle to Quartelhuain.
Huayhuash Circuit itinerary
The official Huayhuash Circuit trail offers a wonderful trekking experience, but often there are even better experiences to be had if you get off the standard trail and onto the ruta alpina (the higher, more scenic, and more remote alpine route) to explore lesser-seen gems of the Cordillera Huayhuash.
This is my exact itinerary (which even differed to my parents’), and I’d do the exact same route again in an instant. I’ve provided all the details of my itinerary below, including trail stats, daily highlights, campsites (more info in Campsites under Communities along the Huayhuash Circuit below), ANDmy favourite and highly recommended non-traditional variations to the Huayhuash Circuit that will pack in even more incredible scenery. Use it to inspire and plan your own itinerary or follow it closely, the choice is yours!
Rainbow of colours looking down into Quebrada Caliente from Cacananpunta
Blaze your own trail to Laguna Mitucocha on the ruta alpina
Wild camp on the lakeshore with amazing views of Jirishanca
Ruta alpina from Cacananpunta to Laguna Mitucocha: Rather than descend to the lake on the mule route, this is a higher, more scenic option that only adds about 30min of trail time.
Wild camp at Laguna Mitucocha: Instead of back-tracking through the valley to the official campsite in Janca, set up camp right on the shores of Laguna Mitucocha below towering Jirishanca. As you look at the mountain, the left side of the lake provides a slightly better vantage point, but the right side will get sun a full 90min sooner in the morning, so it’s a better option. As of yet, it’s not illegal to wild camp on the Huayhuash—pack in/pack out EVERYTHING when you wild camp and leave NO trace so you don’t ruin it for everyone else!
Distance: 9.1km Elevation gain: 715m Highest elevation: High point below Jirishanca Chico 4,870m Trail hours: 6.5hrs Campsite: Laguna Carhuacocha
Incredible view over Hidden Valley and Laguna Mitucocha ascending towards the high point
Yerupajá and Siula Grande from Laguna Carhuacocha
Ruta alpina from Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha: Rather than climbing over Carhuac through the Hidden Valley, this variation along non-existent trails is steeper, far more challenging, navigationally demanding, and about 3hrs longer than the traditional route— but really spectacular! You’ll rejoin the main trail just before camp.
Climb the glacier moraine for views of Laguna Gangrajanca
Amazing view of the Tres Lagunas and Jirishanca, Yerupajá, Siula Grande, and Carnicero from the mirador
Conquer Siula Pass
Mule route via Punta Carnicero: This isn’t a variation I’d recommend, as it skips Siula Pass and the Mirador Tres Lagunas, but my parents took it when they were feeling sick and reported that it was surprisingly beautiful. If you can’t handle the brutally steep ascent up to Siula Pass, at least know that you’ll still enjoy wonderful alpine scenery on this hike, a worthy second-best option.
Distance: 14.3km Elevation gain: 1,270m Highest elevation: Paso San Antonio 5,080m Trail hours: 5hrs Campsite: Cuyoc
Morning views of Nevado Puscanturpa
Cuyoc glacier close enough to touch
A fun side-trip and some of the best views of the trek from Paso San Antonio
Side-trip toPaso San Antonio: After arriving at Cuyoc camp and dropping your pack, you absolutely can’t miss an ascent of Paso San Antonio. If you’re a fast hiker, you can easily get to the top in 1-1.5hrs, but be warned that it’s insanely steep and the terrain gets really sketchy at the top. For the adventurous (and at your own risk), it’s also possible to scramble up the mountain on the left hand side of the pass for even better views of Siula Grande, Yerupajá, and Laguna Juraucocha below. The descent back to camp takes around 45min.
Day 6: Cuyoc & Paso San Antonio to Laguna Juraucocha
Distance: 13.6km Elevation gain: 1,300m Highest elevation: Paso Santa Rosa 5,060m Trail hours: 7.5hrs Campsite: Wild camping at Laguna Juraucocha
Sweeping views of Siula Grande and Laguna Juraucocha from Paso Santa Rosa
Descend towards the Quebrada Sarapococha
Wild camp in front of the Jurau glacier
Side-trip toPaso San Antonio: If you didn’t get a chance to climb Paso San Antonio from Cuyoc camp yesterday (or if you’re super keen like me and want to go twice), you can also climb up for sunrise before hitting the trail. As I mentioned before, the ascent should take 1-1.5hrs and the descent is about 45min.
Paso Santa Rosa: Also called Paso Jurau, this high mountain pass offers incredible views of Siula Grande and Laguna Juraucocha. It is actually part of the traditional Huayhuash trail, but my parents and I were the only people who actually took this route from Cuyoc camp, all of the other independent trekkers and the guided group electing to hike out to Huayllapa instead. Let me just say that you’d be missing some of the best scenery of the entire trek, so don’t skip Santa Rosa! The ascent isn’t nearly as gruelling as San Antonio (although you will have a full pack on, but it’s worth the effort).
Wild camp at Juraucocha: Rather than trekking out to the official camp at Cutatambo, set up camp near Juraucocha at the base of the glacier. I’d recommend finding a spot behind the moraine so you don’t absolutely freeze to death at night, but the scenery is still wonderful. From this spot, you’ll be better situated to explore Quebrada Sarapococha tomorrow, one of the absolute best side-trips on the Huayhuash Circuit.
Amazing views of Lagunas Santa Rosa and Sarapococha from Paso Rosario
Wild camp right beneath Rasac
Quebrada Sarapococha: Ideally, you should spend an entire day exploring this incredible valley, climbing up boulders for better vantage points over Lagunas Santa Rosa and Sarapococha, Siulas Grande and Chico, and Yerupajá before ascending to Paso Rosario or Cerro Gran Vista for the ultimate panorama. This is definitely a lesser-explored area, so it’s unlikely you’ll see any other trekkers, but the reward for all the puzzling navigation and remoteness is truly unreal scenery.
Wild camp at Rasac: After descending Paso Rosario, trek up-valley to the base of Rasac, where it’s possible to wild camp in the shadow of the glacier. This was probably the best morning view we had on the entire trek.
Huayllapa: This little town (and I do mean little, it’s hardly more than one street) is only a short detour off the main trail, but I’d recommend stopping through even if just to get a snack from the local shop. The people in town are absolutely beautiful and we actually had a rather amazing encounter with some of the locals, which you can read about in my longer post on day 8. If you do go, make sure to say hola to Omar & Flor from the Brisbine family!
Early morning sun on Tapush after leaving Huayllapa
Walk through flocks of sheep around Huatiaq
Trek around beautiful Laguna Susucocha
Camp beneath condors and high peaks at Yaucha Punta
Wild camp at Yaucha Punta: I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend camping at a high mountain pass, but we pitched our tent just on the other side of Yaucha Punta out of necessity and found that it made a splendid and scenic campsite. It sets you up for a long final day, but also ensures that you get the magical morning glow on the mountains as you walk along the ridge to Cerro Huacrish tomorrow.
Incredible views and condors sightings at Cerro Huacrish
Beautiful trail around Laguna Jahuacocha
Panoramic views from Rondoy Punta onto a huge icefall
“Close the loop” at Quartelhuain!
Yacha Punta to Incahuain via Cerro Huacrish: Rather than take the mule route down into Incahuain camp, add just 10min to your trek and follow the ridgeline to Cerro Huacrish for infinitely better views.
Incahuain to Quartelhuain via Puntas Sambuya & Rondoy: Skip the boring traditional exit out to Llamac by tackling 2 high mountain passes above Jahuacocha. The route is probably about 1hr longer than the trek through Pampa Llamac and into town, but the views are incomparable. My parents hiked out to Llamac and reported that the descent was positively brutal and seemingly unending, so it’s not really appealing from any angle. If you need to finish the trek in Llamac, you can walk back along the road (3-3.5hrs), but a better option is organising transport from Quartelhuain (allow 40min to walk here from the trail junction).
A ticketing system was implemented a few years ago on the Huayhuash Circuit— you need to pay a small fee to each community as you pass through their land (irrespective of whether you stay at their campsite). Officially, there are 9 communities whose fees are approximately S/25 each, but in reality, you might miss paying for a few tickets based on your exact route and whether the cobradores (ticket sellers) are out and about. Plan to bring S/250 in cash and this should more than cover your fees.
When you pay each cobrador, you will receive a small ticket which includes the name of the community, the date, and sometimes also your name. Keep this ticket safe, as you may be asked to present it later to prove that you’ve paid (you will pass through a couple communities twice on the circuit and also through some checkpoints). Here are the exact fees I paid in August 2019 (you’ll notice many have changed since the trekking guidebook was published), as well as the location of the cobradores:
Llamác S/30: paid along the road to Quartelhuain, even if you are in a shuttle (we paid through the window at a road gate)
Pocpa S/15: paid at Quartelhuain camp
Queropalca S/40: the cobrador is actually at Janca camp, but will come to Laguna Carhuacocha camp the following day and you can buy a ticket if you missed it previously (if you were camping at Laguna Mitucocha, por ejemplo)
Quishuarcancha S/30: paid just after crossing the swing bridge out of Laguna Carhuacocha camp as you head towards Siula Pass
Huayhuash S/30: paid in the morning at Huayhuash camp
Viconga S/20: paid in the morning at Viconga camp
Huayllapa S/40: paid along the trail about an hour before Huayllapa
Cutatambo S/10: this is the only fee we missed, so I can’t 100% confirm the location, but I assume it was at Cutatambo camp
Pacllón S/20: paid at Gashpapampa camp
There are 12 official campsites on the Huayhuash Circuit, each operated by one of the 9 communities who look after the trail. All have flat ground for pitching a tent, a water source (varying from taps to nearby flowing water), and some sort of toilet facility— and pretty much nothing else.
There’s no cost associated with using these campsites, since you’ll pay the community fees regardless of where you sleep, but they are usually in a nice spot and offer a good opportunity to mingle with other trekkers. Here’s a look at the available campsites along the Huayhuash Circuit:
Quartelhuain camp is super windy, but there are flushing toilets, so there’s definitely something to celebrate. You’ll buy your first community ticket here even if you aren’t camping.
Janca (Laguna Mitucocha)
The official camp near Laguna Mitucocha is actually 20min off the lake shore, so I’d recommend pitching a wild camp closer to Jirishanca. You’ll miss buying your community ticket at camp, but it’s possible to purchase it the following day at Laguna Carhuacocha camp.
This is a beautiful campsite set right on the lake overlooking Yerupajá and Siula Grande. Actually, there are two campsites, but I’d recommend staying at the first one, since the second seemed a bit busier with trekking groups. There’s only a measly squat toilet here, but there’s a tap for water and the scenery more than makes up for the poor facilities.
Another scenic camp under tall peaks, Huayhuash camp has 2 blocks of nice toilets and taps for water. Again, there are two sites located right next to each other, but the first is usually for independent trekkers (and small groups). You’ll purchase a community ticket in the morning from camp.
Perhaps the best camp of all, Viconga has 3 hot spring pools, including one for washing clothes and for bathing off the dirt and grime of the previous 4 days. There is a river running through camp that provides water, flushing toilets, and even a man selling cold beer and Coca Cola. Buy a community ticket in the morning.
Cuyoc camp has a nearby river for water, plus a little block of flushing toilets. Make sure you make the epic side-trip up to Paso San Antonio!
Instead of camping at Cutatambo (a further 30min away), I’d recommend setting up shop on the nearby shores of Laguna Jahuacocha, as this spot sets you up better for exploring Quebrada Sarapococha the following day. Position yourself behind the moraine to avoid icy wind off the glacier at night.
There’s a little campsite in Huayllapa with good facilities, but I’d recommend staying more local. While travelling through Huayllapa, we got to know an extremely beautiful family who truly went above and beyond to take care of my stepmum during a bad situation. It was their dream to open a hostel, and amazingly they emailed my stepmum just recently to say that her donation (of just $150USD) allowed them to build the toilets they needed, plus put in a patio out front and paint the exterior of the house. They’ve named one of the rooms in their new hostel “The Brisbine Room”, so now it is MY dream that someone reading this blog post will go hike the Huayhuash Circuit, visit Huayllapa, stay in “The Brisbine room” at Omar and Flor’s, and give them a little more than the S/10 ($3USD) they are charging per bed. I guarantee it will be a highlight of your trek.
There are 2 Huatiaq campsites, both with similar facilities, including a toilet block and river access for water. The camps are about 5-10min apart, so just choose whichever is less crowded.
The is a nice, flat camp just on the other side of Laguna Susucocha. There are unappealing squat toilets and also river access for water.
Incahuain is an absolutely gorgeous campsite on the shores of Laguna Jahuacocha. There were quite a few people here, but enough room that it didn’t seem at all crowded, plus abundant water access and ample opportunities for a chilly swim (!!).
What to expect on the trail
If you haven’t already figured it out, the Huayhuash Circuit is navigationally demanding, especially if you’re hoping to take any of the high alpine detours or side-tripsthat I’ve recommended. There were days on this trip where, even with a map, guidebook, GPS, and two very experienced mountaineers for parents, we spent about 90% of the day looking for the trail. This is nothing like hiking in the Alps, where there are signs with time estimates at every junction, beautifully graded trails, and plenty of other trekkers you could ask for directions if you were really confused— I counted just 2 signs on this entire circuit, spent more time contouring along the hillside in what we hoped to be the general direction than actually on a trail, and went full days without seeing other humans.
The point is: you need to be a confident navigator if you want to set off on this trek alone and you really should have multiple means of navigating. I’d recommend carrying the guidebook (pages 152-174), a full map, and a GPS with you on the trail. Yes, all three are absolutely essential! And even fully prepared, expect to do some confused wandering and a lot of guesswork. This means good common sense and some mountain experience is also pretty important.
Far from well-graded, the trails on the Huayhuash Circuit are very rugged, often covered in scree or loose dirt, and typically STEEP. Expect lots of slipping and sliding around, which means hiking boots with high ankle support and trekking poles really are essential.
Especially when you get off the main trail and onto the ruta alpina, it’s also extremely likely that you’ll be doing some bush-bashing, trail-blazing up the side of a rough hill, or even scrambling over large rocks. This is all part of the adventure, just be prepared to go off-piste and get your hands dirty once in a while.
For a high-altitude trek like the Huayhuash Circuit, where you never really step below 4,000m and you frequently ascend above 5,000m, you’ll notice the lack of oxygen in the air right away. For most people, this means you’ll be out of breath on the trail, you won’t have a very big appetite, you’ll need to pee more frequently, and you’ll have some difficulty sleeping. I probably moved a little slower than usual, but I thankfully didn’t experience any of these other symptoms— thanks to LOTS of acclimatisation!
Beyond the normal response to elevation, some people also experience altitude sickness, and the risk on this trek is pretty high. “Altitude sickness” includes Acute Mountain Sickness (which can be mild to moderate in severity) and High-altitude Cerebral/Pulmonary Oedema (both of which can be fatal)— it’s incredibly important to understand the risks, take appropriate preventative measures, and know what to do if you do become unwell on the trail. I wrote a super detailed post on high-altitude trekking that I would recommend reading— it will give you heaps of information on recognising and treating altitude sickness, plus what you can do to prevent it.
In brief, the most important things you can do on this trek to minimise the risk of serious altitude-related health complications are to:
Acclimatise: I mentioned this previously, but it bears repeating that acclimatising properly before beginning your trek is probably the single best way to prevent altitude sickness on the Huayhuash Circuit. This should include at least a few days in Cusco or Huaraz, plus some high-altitude day-hikes.
Ascend slowly: You shouldn’t try to climb too many high-altitude passes in a single day or gain a lot of elevation super quickly. Both the itinerary I described in this post and the one proposed by the trekking guidebook split up the ascents into reasonable chunks. There’s a reason for this!
Camp low: The placement of campsites along the Huayhuash Circuit make it easy to follow the “climb high, sleep low” principle, so this isn’t too big of a concern.
Pack altitude sickness medication: No one ever plans to develop life-threatening altitude sickness, but it’s vital to be prepared, just in case. See a doctor and get a prescription for Acetazolamide, Dexamethasone, and Nifedipine before your trip. I found that my doctor knew very little about altitude sickness medication, so I did a lot of research in medical journals to find the appropriate dosage. It might be a good idea to read this post prior to seeing a doctor so you can discuss the information with them.
All official campsites along the trail have some sort of water access, be it a river, lake, or even just a running tap, but none of this water is clean or safe to drink without filtering first. Boiling water before cooking will obviously make it potable, but I’d recommend packing a filtered water bottle or some other type of filtration system for your drinking water on the Huayhuash Circuit. You’re never more than a few hours from a water source, so you don’t have to carry too much in your pack, either.
Food & other supplies
Aside from the cold beer and Coca Cola sold at Viconga camp, the only place on the Huayhuash Circuit to replenish food and supplies is in the little town, Huayllapa. Most trekkers will hit this around day 6-8 of their journey. There’s no fuel for stoves here, but there are snacks and drinks available from a little shop and hot meals made to order.
If you’re super strapped for space or weight, you could pack just enough food to get you to Huayllapa and do a complete restock here, but know that there definitely isn’t any dehydrated mountain food, so you’ll be carrying heavy, bulky items. Still, it’s probably lighter than carrying 10 days of food from the outset, but we decided we’d rather play it safe and pack things we knew we could fill up on rather than rely on snacks.
Many years ago, a young hiker was robbed at gunpoint and killed on the Huayhuash Circuit, leading to the conclusion that this area just wasn’t safe for independent trekkers. In the decades since, the local community has done a lot to restore safety to this area, though, and there’ve been absolutely no incidents in recent years. This is thanks in part to the 9 communities along the trek, who have assumed responsibility for looking after the trail and those on it. It’s impossible to say that nothing bad will ever happen on this trail again, but the Huayhuash Circuit felt completely safe during my trip, regardless of whether we were staying at designated camps with other trekkers or camping entirely on our own.
Far greater than the threat of robbers is Pachamama, whose constantly-changing weather and unpredictable trail conditions can make for a challenging trip. Under no circumstances should you embark on this trek without a well-stocked first aid kit, a good knowledge of mountain survival, and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). Both of my parents have had to be med-evac’d off a summit in recent years, and that means we as a family are really conscious of the fact that, even for experienced mountaineers, accidents can happen.
Particularly in the remote Andes where you can go days without seeing other humans, carrying a PLB could be the difference between life and death. We carried an InReach, but there are cheaper options with fewer features that will do an equally effective job in an emergency. Just make sure your model works in Peru— AND that you have good travel insurance that covers medical evacuation.
Packing list for the Huayhuash Circuit
Considering that you need to be prepared for below freezing weather, rain or snow, and medical emergencies, plus carry all of your camping equipment, clothing, personal items, and food for 10-days over 5,000m mountain passes, packing smart is a big deal on this trek. The name of the game when packing for the Huayhuash Circuit is less, lighter, smaller.
Try to keep that in mind as you write your own packing list— where you’d ordinarily bring 2 or 3 shirts, por ejemplo, just bring one, and where you’d usually pack a hiking towel, go without. Even with substantial cuts to my normal hiking list, my pack still weighed in at 18kg and my dad’s at 28kg, so leave the non-essentials at home to avoid a backpack you can’t even pick up.
Breakfast food: I like Cup of Soup or tortilla soup and hot chocolate or tea. This was a great way to get both salty foods and a heap of water into my system before hitting the trail, since dehydration is a real concern on high-altitude treks.
Lunch & snack food: Try calorie-dense foods like beef jerky, nuts, salami, cheese sticks, fruit leathers, and trail mix. If you want to go a little light on the snacks, you can replenish your supply about 2/3rds of the way through the hike at Huayllapa.
Dinner food: Lots of dehydrated mountain food; my favourite brands are Packit Gourmet (USA) and Outdoor Gourmet Company (AUS). Bring some variety, but also make sure to pack things that you know you’ll like. It’s common to experience loss of appetite and even some stomach upset at altitude, so the best way to ensure you’re actually eating is to bring your favourites! For us, that meant a LOT of spicy queso dip and Fritos (if you’re not hiking with chips and dip, you’re doing it wrong).